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Cowboys 2023 draft scouting report: San Diego State iDL Jonah Tavai

A diamond in the rough from San Diego State for the Cowboys in the draft.

Boise State v San Diego State Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

A continuing series of scouting reports for potential Cowboys draft picks.

Name: Jonah Tavai
Position: iDL
Height: 6’0”
Weight: 295 pounds

Jonah Tavai Career Stats, courtesy of Sports Reference

Combine Results: Not invited

Jonah Tavai has had the NFL in his sights for quite a while. He has four brothers who have all played Division 1 college football, with two of them having already reached the NFL. Jonah will be the next, but it’s not like he’s getting a handout.

Growing up in California, Tavai was playing football from a young age. In high school, he also took part in track and field, as well as rugby. That prepared him for life in the trenches, but Tavai still failed to earn any Division 1 scholarship offers. He spent a year at a junior college before earning an offer at San Diego State. Rated a two-star prospect by that time, Tavai chose the Aztecs over Iowa State and San Jose State.

At San Diego State, Tavai saw the field early on in head coach Rocky Long’s unique 3-3-5 scheme which saw Tavai play all over the line of scrimmage. He took steps forward each season, and became a core piece of the Aztecs defense by the end of his college career. Tavai has shown more than enough to earn his spot in the NFL, but after not even receiving an invite to the combine, he’ll once again have to force scouts to notice his obvious talent.

Burst: Tavai has a spring in his step and he launches out of his stance with ease. He was able to put up dominant numbers in large part because he so consistently won against offensive linemen just on his first step alone. He also has some limited exposure playing out of a two point stance, and his burst remains impressive in those situations.

Footwork: Tavai is very precise with his feet, doing a great job of positioning himself to gain leverage against blockers. Due to his size, he has to have consistent footwork in order to win matchups, and he has little problem there.

Hand Technique: He is very active with his hands, keeping them moving through engagement. He packs a good punch when making first contact, and is able to compensate for his lack of elite length with how good his hand placement is.

Pass Rush Moves: In 2022, Tavai led all interior defenders in both pressures and sacks; he had 10 more pressures than second place and four more sacks than the runner up. That’s ahead of surefire first-round picks like Jalen Carter and Calijah Kancey. Tavai doesn’t have the deepest bag of pass rush moves, but he’s become a master of the few moves he does have. In the Mountain West Conference, that made him a game-wrecker. In the NFL, it’s enough to make him a valuable rotational piece.

Lateral Agility: Tavai is not an elite mover laterally, but he’s good enough to get the job done. He’s so compact in his frame that he can look a little stiff going side to side, but he was more than functional in college.

Athleticism: It would have been very helpful to see Tavai testing alongside his peers at the combine. On tape, he appears to have solid functional athleticism, but it’s hard to really judge given his quality of competition. He’s likely not an elite athlete, but he never seemed outclassed on the field.

Run Defense: Tavai was an elite run defender and the straw that stirred the drink of the Aztecs’ run defense. Only two interior defenders in this draft class recorded more run stops than Tavai did in 2022, but he posted a lower average depth of tackle. He’s got a great feel for reading the backfield and disengaging to go after the ball-carrier. That Tavai had such success despite playing every spot on the defensive line is a testament to his instincts in run support.

Processing: Very, very smart football player. As a function of the scheme, Tavai was asked to two-gap an awful lot and run exotic stunts in the pass rush game. He flashed again and again an ability to read the offense and react in time as a two-gapper, and played with great anticipation of both offensive linemen and his own defenders when stunting. He never looked overwhelmed or unsure of himself.

Intangibles: Tavai has football bloodlines, which is something scouts crave. He’s also shown grit and determination in overcoming the complete lack of D1 offers out of high school to become a dominant player at a Group of 5 school. He’s a textbook hustle type of guy who will catch plenty of teams’ interest on the third day of the draft.

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